- The weeks before the NFL season kicks off are the perfect time to dream about what we might see—even if we've seen it all before.
For all the ways NFL management misunderstands the tastes and attitudes of the general public—and, as we gear up for a twelfth season of Thursday Night Football, we shall not forget that there are many—the league grasps, broadly, that scarcity undergirds the sport’s appeal. The games last only from early September til early February, and come summer the game’s absence breeds genuine anticipation.
And all that longing spawns America’s favorite NFL-media commodity: the preseason hype story.
Teams usually reveal if they’re any good quickly after the season begins; all action prior probably deceives us more than enlightens us. When was the last time a preseason game or open practice provided a useful window into how a team will play? (An exception here for any dispatch from Jets camp involving Christian Hackenberg overthrowing his receivers by 10 feet.) Most coaches don’t try all that hard to win preseason games. Star players don't show much either.
And how often do players and coaches arrive at camp and openly lament their clubs’ roster deficiencies? When does a top pick say, “Sorry, turns out I’m never going to be able to succeed at this level,” and when does a veteran say, “Sorry, I’ve lost a step”? Candor and self-awareness has no place in the preseason media ecosystem. As Dennis Green might have had it: That’s why we take the damn field.
In a more sensible world, NFL fans would spend every moment from the Super Bowl trophy presentation until the Week 1 kickoff catching up on, I dunno, contemporary literary fiction. But to hell with that—bring on the meaningless preseason stories! As their harvesting season approaches, we provide is a taxonomy of the seven teams we meet in preseason-hype stories every year:
1. THE TEAM THAT WENT ALL-IN ON A FIRST-ROUND QUARTERBACK: Quarterbacks tend to turn general managers batty. Teams seem not to evaluate QB prospects as they would linemen or defensive backs—as football players and nothing more. Instead quarterbacks get bumped up draft boards for their intangibles, for their brilliant smiles, for what they indicate about a front office’s hunger to win. Even though the 2017 draft class was considered light on stud signal-callers, three were drafted in the first 12 picks. Mitch—excuse me, Mitchell—Trubisky went No. 2 to Chicago after just one Sun Bowl-losing season starting for North Carolina. While Deshaun Watson, picked No. 12 by Houston, demonstrated considerably more in the way of college heroics at Clemson, he too can credit GMs’ quarterback bug for his climb up the draft board. A number of teams reportedly slapped him with a second- or third-round grade.
Perhaps Trubisky will become the best Bears passer since Sid Luckman and bestow similar success upon the franchise. And perhaps Watson will become the league’s best dual-threat QB. But the odds are against them. Of the 26 first-round quarterbacks selected from 2007 to ’16, only seven have career winning records as starters—and Mark Sanchez (third on the Bears’ depth chart) and Tim Tebow (starting left fielder for the St. Lucie Mets) happen to be two of those seven. Check back in on the Bears three years from now, and not a moment sooner. As for the Texans, they managed to host a playoff game last year despite a truly excremental season from Brock Osweiler and company. They can win with any halfway decent year.
2. THE TEAM THAT HIRED AN OFFENSIVE GURU: What’s management to do when a top quarterback pick bombs? They could concede they erred and cut their losses by signing a sturdy veteran free agent (a Brian Hoyer type, preferably Brian Hoyer himself) and leaning on all the surrounding pieces. Or they could bring in a new coach with a new offense in an attempt to fix—but more likely just confuse—the QB, who might never have had all that much talent in the first place. One approach involves the admission of failure. One doesn’t. Which would you expect teams to choose?
There are only six offensive coordinators who were in their jobs during the 2014 season. It’s a transitional gig—every year, a handful of ’em get promoted, a larger handful get scapegoated and axed—and largely a thankless one. And the track record isn't much better for head coaches hired to fix quarterbacks, Adam Gase's success in Miami last season notwithstanding. Teaching is hard; coming up with good new ideas in a 97-year-old league is harder. Anyway, best of luck to the Rams’ Sean McVay and Matt LaFleur in their attempt to fix Jared Goff.
3. THE TEAM THAT LIBERATED ITSELF BY FIRING AN OVERBEARING COACH: Greg Schiano’s 2012-13 tenure in Tampa Bay is one of the most abhorrent in recent memory. The martinet head coach earned back-to-back last-place divisional finishes and the undying enmity of his players. Schiano was replaced by the gentler Lovie Smith—happy days are here again!— but the former Bears coach went 2–14 in his debut season and 6–10 in the next one. So much for the importance of a culture change.
Lucky Kyle Shanahan, replacing dictatorial Chip Kelly in San Francisco, has the opportunity to rebuild his team essentially from scratch. (OK, OK... While last year’s Giants did get better after swapping hardass Tom Coughlin for the lower-key Ben McAdoo, approximately all of that jump had to do with major defensive additions all panning out. The team's biggest holdover stars from the Coughlin era, Eli Manning and Odell Beckham, Jr., took steps back in 2016.)
4. THE TEAM THAT RESTORED ORDER BY HIRING AN OVERBEARING COACH: Speaking of Coughlin, he’s head of football operations in Jacksonville now, and he and new head coach Doug Marrone removed the ping-pong table from the Jaguars’ locker room this offseason. Not to be outdone, new Bills boss Sean McDermott removed the locker room’s pool and air hockey tables and its video game setup. (Though he kept the ping-pong table.)
Such behavior demonstrates nothing more than a new head coach’s commitment to humorlessness—teams can win with or without mild amusement in the locker room. That said, if the Jaguars and Bills meet in the AFC championship game, and both teams credit the absence of petty locker-room distractions, I will gladly let a red-faced Tom Coughlin berate me for hours on end.
5. THE TEAM THAT POSTED A MISLEADING RECORD THANKS TO CLOSE WINS: How illuminating are close games? A blowout reveals which team is superior—not so for a tight finish. How often would you pick the winner in a rematch? 80% of the time? There’s a school of thought that certain teams just know how to win and can perform disproportionately well in close games thanks to astute clock management, steady special teams or a quarterback with a flair for comebacks. More often than not, though, such success is the product of season-to-season randomness. The 2015 NFC champion Panthers went 6–1 in games decided by a touchdown or less. In 2016, they went 2–6 in those games. They couldn’t have just forgotten how to win.
This season’s analogue to Carolina is Oakland, the favorite story of 2016. The Raiders outscored their opponents, in the aggregate, by 31 points last year. By the numbers, Oakland should have won eight or nine games; instead, they won 12. (In contrast, the Broncos outscored their opponents by 36 and won nine games.) A repeat 12-win performance would likely require a better underlying season from Derek Carr, Khalil Mack, Amari Cooper and the rest. We’ll have to wait ’til the fall to know whether they have it in them.
6. THE TEAM THAT MADE ALL THE RIGHT MOVES IN FREE AGENCY: Basketball and baseball have for years spoiled fans with franchise-defining free agency. Kevin Durant and LeBron James switched teams as free agents; so too did Albert Pujols and Robinson Cano. In football, thanks to the franchise tag and the brevity of the average career, the best players rarely hit the open market. Those who do generally fit into one of two categories: the veteran with only one or two good years left who’s worth a contender’s splurge, and the younger player whose limited history of excellence scores a large guarantee from a team other than the one that drafted him. Players in the former group offer incremental upgrades, players in the latter one constitute lottery tickets.
Jacksonville added players who fit into both groups this offseason. The team spent a small fortune this offseason on former Cardinals defensive lineman Calais Campbell, who will be 31 years old in Week 1, and ex-Texans cornerback A.J. Bouye, who had hardly played before a breakout season in 2016. Bouye may well be the real deal, but Jaguars fans would be forgiven if they were reminded of 2015 free-agent cornerback signee Davon House. House lasted little more than a season in his starting job and was cut in March. The Jaguars went 5–11 that season (and 3–13 in 2016).
7. OH HELL, THE JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: The team has been all of these teams at various points in their 22 seasons. Sometimes, as now, they have been two or three of these teams at the same time. It doesn’t matter. It never matters. Until they present convincing evidence otherwise, this ruling holds: They stink.